Chinese Export Silver Rosewater Sprinklers Created for the Islamic World

A particularly fine example of a pair of late 18th-century parcel gilt filigree rosewater sprinklers. This is actually a good example of silver filigree work not being able to be exactly identified, since these could either be Chinese or Batavian. Now part of the collection at the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore, they do come with the provenance of having been listed in the inventory of the Duke of Portland’s country seat at Welbeck Abbey.

It was back in 2012 when I first wrote an article about Chinese Export Silver that was clearly made for the Islamic world. A year of further research has brought to light much more information; what was already an interesting niche in an even more interesting silver category has now become all the richer for this new knowledge. For this reason, I’ve decided to revisit the subject in order to present a more complete picture.

By the “Islamic World,” in the context of Chinese Export Silver in the 18th and 19th centuries, we are talking of Arabia, South East Asia, the Indian sub-continent, the various “’Stans” of southern Russia, and Armenia. The silver, again in the context of Chinese Export Silver, is almost totally confined to rosewater sprinklers. What can be a highly decorative yet not particularly significant object in principle becomes quite a complex object in the context of silver made by Chinese artisans for cultures that are, in the main, not directly connected with China.

Firstly, the rosewater sprinkler is not an exclusively Islamic item, but it is intrinsically part of Islamic culture; it is to be found connected with Islam, Judaism and Hinduism and this has a relevancy when connected to Chinese silversmiths. The earliest silver that came into China in the Sung and Tang dynasties came from Sassania (modern-day Iran). This silver, although created mainly by Jewish silversmiths that lived in Sassania, had what we would recognize today as having distinct Persian and Mediterranean influences. Many of those Jewish silversmiths eventually settled in Pien-Liang (Kaifeng) in China in the 10th century and carried on the family tradition of silversmithing down through the generations. Some 22 current Chinese surnames can trace their roots back to 10th-century Kaifeng, including Ai, Gao, Jin, Li, Zhang, Shi and Zhau; a Jewish Chinese silversmith is to be found to this day in Kaifeng. Two of these names, Jin and Shi, are equivalent to the traditional Jewish names of “Gold” and “Stone.” So it’s not totally incongruous that we find in the Qing dynasty (1644-1912, the last Imperial Chinese dynasty), Chinese Export Silver objects made specifically for the “Islamic” market; of these, again, the predominant was the rosewater sprinkler.

But it is probably we, in the 20th and 21st centuries, that regard the rosewater sprinkler as Islamic, when it was—and still is—used widely by Sephardi Jews in marriage ceremonies and ritual meals at Passover and New Year. At the Jewish festival of Shavuot (Pentecost), Sephardi Jews traditionally eat Sahlab and Mahlabi, both rosewater-infused dairy desserts. Certainly the Sassanian Jews would have used them—Sassania being modern-day Iran—but Sassanian Jews were not technically Sephardi; they were pre-Hasmonean Jews or remnants of the first exile after the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem. Some Sassanian Jews also eventually settled in Bombay, again many of them being silversmiths. In the 18th and 19th centuries, we have silver rosewater sprinklers being made in Canton and Bombay and is highly probable why it is often difficult to distinguish between Chinese and Indian work, especially before makers’ marks became the norm. Peranakan and Batavian silver rosewater sprinklers also have a similar style of work, silver filigree often being incorporated.

An early 19-century Chines Export Silver gilt filigree rosewater sprinkler (unmarked).

Chinese Export Silver and parcel gilt rosewater sprinkler by “Gothic K” of Canton, circa 1840.

Chinese Export Silver rosewater sprinkler by YatShing of Canton, circa 1830.  

Chinese Export Silver rosewater sprinkler by MK of Canton, circa 1890. Inclined-headed sprinklers were not uncommon.

Chinese Export Silver rosewater sprinkler by Wang Hing, circa 1895.

The art of silver filigree was very much associated with Sephardi Jewish silversmiths. We also know that Jewish silversmiths took their filigree techniques with them when they were expelled from Spain and Portugal in the 15th century. Asian contacts in particular, not least through the founding of the Dutch East India Company, were to have a great influence on the further development of the technique of filigree. Jewish silversmiths, however, were adept at optimizing ancient family and tribal links around the world; their trades and links were part of their naturally peripatetic survival mechanism. Karimnagar in Andra Pradesh and Trivandrum in Kerala were both known centers for highly superior silver filigree work; they also had significant Jewish populations. It is this ability to move their skills and their families to safer havens and the sharing of expertise with others that most probably helps account for the similarities between the various filigree silver work produced in South East Asia, the Indian sub-continent, North Africa and even Eastern Europe.

Rosewater sprinklers are also used in the Maha Shirvratri festival, a day dedicated to Shiva, a significant deity in Hinduism. Rosewater sprinklers have been used in the Indian sub-continent from the Mughal period (1526-1857) to the present day and are prevalent in many Islamic customs and rituals.

What is especially interesting is that, given Chinese Export Silver is a large and highly significant silver category, we have almost no evidence of silver being made for use in Christian rituals. We have silver tankards in the high Chinese style that were adopted as novelty christening mugs but not specifically made as such; hardly any chalices or other Christian ceremonial ware. Yet we do have Jewish “megillot” (scrolls of Esther), Sabbath candlesticks and rosewater sprinklers that we can attribute to three religions, yet nothing overtly Christian. This is particularly strange, since the China Trade had a predominance of Christian merchants from Great Britain and America. It’s a mystery yet to be unraveled. The only overtly Christian objects I’ve ever come across were made at T’ou Se We in Shanghai, which was run by Jesuit priests for Chinese orphans to learn artisan skills.

Perfumation and thurification have a very long history and can be traced back to prehistoric times. For thurification, various types of incense burners were and are used until this day. For perfumation, rosewater was used and stored and applied in specially made sprinklers. The rose, from which the rose-water was made, has a very long history.

This exquisite pair of silver gilt and enamel filigree rosewater sprinklers is one of the finest examples of Chinese Export Silver on the planet. They are part of the toilet set belonging to Catherine the Great. They date from the mid-18th century and were acquired in 1789 from the Winter Palace main collection; they now sit in the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. They have a globular body, long neck and flower-shaped perforated mouth for sprinkling. This shape originated in the Near East and became popular in India, China and even in Europe in the 18th century but are equally in the high Rococo style that Catherine admired so much. Such vessels were made from different materials including silver, porcelain or enamel. Both bottles were modeled from a sheet of silver, gilded and dressed into thin openwork gilded filigree of different designs. On the sides the sprinklers are decorated with small branches of flowers and leaves, cut from a silver sheet, gilded and covered with blue and green enamel and paint. The branches are fixed with wires.

Some scholars claimed that the importance of the rose—or indeed, the origin of roses—was discovered by the Persians (the biblical Hebrew for “rose” is “shoshannah”; the biblical Hebrew for Persia is “shushan”). Susa was the capital of Elam—residence of King Darius. For storing perfumes the shape of the “tear bottles” or unguentaria was favored. Evidence for the continuity of rosewater sprinklers is well provided by surviving bronze and, later, by copper and silver examples. The Arabic name for these rosewater sprinklers is qum-qum. Such metal vessels became very popular and widespread during the early medieval Islamic period in Iran and Central Asia, first of all in Afghanistan. There were several types made, but perhaps one of the earliest of these had pear-shaped bodies which was decorated with almond-shaped, or as they are sometimes called “tear-drop” elements. These were not only decorative, but also functional, since they provided better grips on the vessels. They had short-waisted necks and mouths which had several small knobs around the rim. It is claimed that this design owes its origin to the earlier Roman bronze sprinklers. In Persian, they are known as golabdan.

The word attar, which is today a synonym for rose oil essence, comes from the Arabic ’itr, meaning “perfume” or “essence.” The first description of the distillation of rose petals was written by the ninth-century philosopher al-Kindi, and more sophisticated equipment was described in the 10th century by al-Razi; one of the earliest centers of rosewater production was in southern Persia. Later, in the 13th century, rosewater was produced widely in Syria and the name of the oil-bearing rose genus Damascena may trace its origins to the city of Damascus. But true attar—rose oil, as we know it today—was not produced until the late 16th century, when the double-distillation technique was developed. 

Catherine the Great, probably one of the most voracious collectors of the 18th century, had an obsession of all things Chinese; one of many obsessions she maintained most of her life. Here we see the sprinklers in the context of the complete 32-object priceless toilet set. The objects of the toilet set were made in pairs and organized on a table symmetrically around the mirror.

Hand-held rosewater sprinklers, traditionally made with long straight necks and bulbous bottoms, have a time-honored role in festivities in much of the Islamic world. To mark the end of a wedding feast, rosewater is sprinkled on the hands and faces of guests; at a Sephardi Jewish wedding, guests are greeted with the same ritual. Aesthetic appreciation and commercial demand have encouraged silversmiths and other artisans to develop exceptionally beautiful sprinklers, examples of which can be found in museums throughout the Arabian Gulf region. In the home, a precious rosewater sprinkler is a symbol of hospitality and, incidentally, a demonstration of social standing and affluence. 

Rosewater sprinklers were more often than not originally made as pairs. Today, it is a matching pair that will have enhanced value due their rarity.

The early dating of these sprinklers would account for the lack of maker’s mark. Chinese Export Silver makers had not yet adopted the use of marks and Batavian silversmiths might well have been Chinese; only silversmiths who had converted to Christianity were required to mark their silver after 1730.

Catherine the Great, probably one of the most voracious collectors of the 18th century, had an obsession of all things Chinese; one of many obsessions she maintained most of her life. Among the items in her collection was a 32-object priceless toilet set, complete with rosewater shakers. The exquisite and fragile pieces are made in such a way that we still admire the skill of the Chinese silversmiths: they look like a silver lace. The granulation is rarely used, but sometimes we can see additional decoration with gilding, enameling, paint or feathers and silk. The Chinese filigree has not still been surpassed in workmanship and thinness.

Apart from articles for the toilet of an aristocratic lady, there are two groups of decorative sculptures included into the set—pairs of birds on stands with branches and trees. They are brightened with paint, silk and feathers. The elaborate mirror and toilet set of Chinese make of the mid-18th century are still unique in the fineness of execution and completeness. Only a few similar individual objects or smaller groups can be found in other important collections, including the collection of Lord Clive of Plassey (a.k.a. Clive of India) at Powis Castle, Wales, and are listed in the 1774-75 inventory, including Chinese Export Silver, silver gilt and enamel rosewater sprinkler.

This is a late 18th-century Chinese Export Silver filigree rosewater sprinkler, made in Canton, it is said, for the Indian market. Very much in the high rococo style of their Catherine the Great counterparts—the globular body between two squat bulbous mounts on an arched foot, the tall slender neck rising to a terminal of stylized floral form. Silver and parcel gilt filigree decoration throughout with swirls and cellwork applied with enamel workflowers and vines. This particular piece was sold at auction at Bonhams, London in April 2013 for $7,600.

Here is a late 19th-century Ottoman silver rosewater sprinkler specifically made for Havdalah, because the base has three Hebrew letters inscribed bet, mem, bet, standing for borei minei besamim.

We have to contemplate whether rosewater sprinklers are, in fact, Islamic or is it a misperception due to our romantic ideal of the East and the Orient. My own research indicates that it is a multi-cultural object that has its roots in ancient Persia. Which brings us back to the 10th-century silversmiths in Kaifeng, because the rosewater sprinkler is also used in an ancient ceremony practiced by Sephardi Jews to mark the end of the Sabbath and the start of the new week; the Havdalah ceremony. Its name comes from the Hebrew word L’Havdel, meaning to separate or distinguish. It marks the separation of the Sabbath from the rest of the week. There are two blessings; the second is a blessing over spices. This is the only instance in Judaism when aromatics are used ritually. The use of rosewater pre-dates the more commonly used spices today by thousands of years, the container dispensing this being a rosewater sprinkler. The blessing contains the words Hebrew words borei minei besamim (who has created various fragrances). All this would have been very familiar to the 10th century Kaifeng silversmiths.

It is not inconceivable, therefore, that many of the Jewish merchant families connected with the China Trade, such as the Sassoons and the Khadoories, would have been using Chinese Export Silver rosewater sprinklers for Havdalah, while Maharajahs, Muslims and Hindus would have used them for other purposes, leaving Catherine the Great and Clive of India to treasure theirs for decorative merits.

Finally, we should not forget that rosewater was and still is widely used in Arab, Persian, Indian and Sephardi Jewish cuisine and that rosewater sprinklers, apart from their ritual and decorative uses, would also have been used in the same way as condiment sets on a festive table.


Acknowledgments to Danny Cheng in Hong Kong for his translation skills.

Unless otherwise stated, all images are from the www.chinese-export-silver.com archive, managed by Christopher Hunter at www.eleven38photography.co.uk.


Adrien von Ferscht is an Honorary Research Fellow at University of Glasgow’s Scottish Centre for China Research and also works with museums and universities around the world. His ever-expanding website, Chinese Export Silver, is the largest online information resource on the subject. Adrien recently released “Catalogue of Chinese Export Makers’ Marks,” the largest reference work for makers’ marks ever published. You can e-mail Adrien at avf@chinese-export-silver.com.

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